The following is a meditation on a personal experience and should not be cited authoritatively in academia. It sat half-written in drafts for about six months, and after Wisconsin’s loss to Duke earlier this week, it felt like a nice thing to finish.
Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, is my second favorite state. It occurred to me at some point towards the end of my stay at the University of Minnesota that, for one reason or another, a disproportionate amount of my college friends were from the other side of the St. Croix. About two-thirds of the University’s freshman come from Minnesota, so given the other 48 states and international students, we could probably ballpark it and say that about a fifth of the student body hails from Wisconsin. I don’t want to make a list, MySpace-style, and check people off, but I’d probably say a slight majority of the people I liked to hang out over my three years at the U with were from Wisconsin. I had relatively few friends from the Twin Cities metro area, and, oddly enough, most of them were from St. Paul proper, which was a bit of an anomaly.
Why might this be? In part, the random draw of lots of things–my freshman year roommate, the staff of the building I worked at sophomore year, etc. But there may be something more to it. Wisconsin, which is a bit smaller than Minnesota and has a few more people, is settled very differently than us. It’s a state chock full of large towns and small cities. Our largest metro, Minneapolis-St. Paul, contains about 60% of our population, while the Milwaukee metro area only contains about a third of Wisconsin’s. We’ve got some small cities like Duluth and Rochester in Minnesota, but the state is really dominated by the Twin Cities metro area in a way that differs from Wisconsin. Over there, you’ve got more of your Madisons and your Appletons and your Janesvilli and so forth.
Many of them are college towns with a campus of the University of Wisconsin system–Eau Claire, La Crosse. More endearingly, many have actual industries that they’re known for–paper mills in Wausau, the Neenah Foundry, the Leinenkugel’s Brewery in Chippewa Falls, and so on.
But anyway, maybe there’s something about growing up in a place that has, you know, a couple hundred thousand people or so that makes folks kind of friendly. Like a town that’s just big enough to have one mall, but it’s kind of mediocre and not taken seriously. Does where you grow up impact your personality? Almost certainly. Biking here or here as a teenager, or hanging out here or here, all shape your conceptions of your environment and what your environment can and should be for the rest of your life. I still get the nervous stretchies in 2015 when waiting for a ride outside my Loring Park apartment building, which stems from experiences doing the same as a 16 year old in exurban Virginia.
Having been around the outstate parts of both states a little bit–I think I’m 60 miles away from Minneapolis more often than six miles away–I can say that the large towns and small cities of both states all pretty sprawly so I don’t know that we could necessarily draw a ton of urbanist conclusions from the anecdata. And, I would suppose, the slice of Brainerd or Racine high school students who end up at the University of Minnesota is probably a lot different than the slice from Lakeville directional high school.
But forget Portland–let’s shoot for Madison while we still can. Madison is really nice. Had never really gone and walked around until 2013, for a wedding. And you can walk! There are just blocks and blocks of mid-rise buildings with active uses and people and things and bikes and approachable streets. Our metro area is six or seven times more populous than Madison’s, and yet we really have nothing even approaching State Street.